Whiffle: verb – to blow lightly in puffs or gusts; noun – something light or insignificant.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"Scratch in the Mirror"

Those who have been paying attention (is anyone still paying attention?) may have noticed that lately I've been posting a number of items about lefties – more specifically, natural righties who play golf left-handed, and vice-versa. That's because that's the subject of the book I've been working on – and what's been drawing my attention from blogging. I've decided that it's time to merge the two a bit and start blogging about the project. So here's the working introduction to Scratch in the Mirror: Right-handed Lefties, Left-handed Righties, and the Search for the Perfect Backhanded Golf Swing. By Mike Zimmerman. (You may notice that this earlier post was actually an earlier version of the introduction.)
     Please don't hold back with your opinions. I can use all the feedback I can get!

Scratch in the Mirror – Introduction
Want to win a few bets at the 19th hole? Ask the others in your foursome how many lefties have won major championships in golf. Your knowledgeable friends will say three: Bob Charles, Mike Weir, and Phil Mickelson.
    Imagine their shock and surprise when you tell them – as you hastily collect your winnings – that none of those guys is a real lefty. Each is actually right-handed, but plays golf from the sinister side.
    Now imagine their rage when they realize you’ve tricked them. Fisticuffs ensue. Since you’re outnumbered three-to-one, they easily beat you to a pulp and take back their winnings. They also take your watch and the rest of the cash in your wallet, just for good measure.
    Man, who are these guys!? Why you would want to play golf with three jerks like that is beyond me, but who am I to judge another man’s friends?
    Later, in the ER, you tell your wife what happened and she asks the obvious question: “Well …? If not Charles, Weir, and Mickelson [your wife is very knowledgeable about golf; that’s why you married her], what is the right answer? Have any actual left-handers ever won a major professional golf championship?”
    A smile creeps across your bloodied face, but you wince only slightly at the pain. “Johnny Miller,” you gasp. “Greg Norman. Curtis Strange. Nick Price. David Graham. Byron Nelson.”
    A hush falls as doctors, nurses, assorted orderlies, and the little old lady in the waiting room stop what they’re doing and draw silently closer, hanging on your every word. Everyone is astonished by the revealed wisdom that has already passed your swollen lips, but you’re not done yet. With strength fading, you summon another breath and whisper, like Charles Foster Kane spitting out “Rosebud”: “Hogan.”
    A nurse faints. In the hallway, a bedpan crashes to the floor. Across the pond, a chill wind blows through “Hogan’s Alley” at Carnoustie.
“They’re all naturally left-handed,” you explain. “They only play golf right-handed.”
    A tear runs down your wife’s cheek as she turns to the attending physician and says, “Doctor, my husband is obviously delirious and in great pain. Can you do something?”
    Shaking his head with a sad and concerned look, the doctor lowers a mask to your face. Moments later the room goes dark and all is quiet.
    In retrospect, maybe you should have just stuck to the conventional wisdom. Or at least made the stakes a little lower.
• • •

Ever since I was a kid first taking up the game of golf, I was taught that the left hand is, or should be, the dominant hand in a right-handed golf swing. “You’re using too much right hand!” was my dad’s most consistent piece of advice. “Let your left hand pull the club through; don’t push it through with your right.”
    How can that be? I always wondered. I throw with my right hand. I write with my right hand. I hit my annoying younger brother with my right hand. Why wouldn’t I use my right hand more to swing a golf club?
    And, assuming it’s true that I shouldn’t, wouldn’t it make sense for me, as a right-handed person, to play golf left-handed?
That thought has haunted me ever since. And so when Phil the Thrill, the right-handed lefty, first burst onto the scene by winning the U.S. Amateur and a boatload of college titles (not to mention a PGA victory) as a young amateur, I assumed he was a product of just such a theory. Surely, I thought, someone must have groomed him to play as a southpaw with an eye toward testing this theory – and hopes of turning him into a world-class player.
    The truth, as it turns out, is more mundane – but at least as interesting. When Phil was first taking up the game as a wee lad in San Diego, California, he learned to swing a club by standing in front of his father and literally mirroring the elder Mickelson’s movements. At some point they tried to turn him around, to swing the club like a proper right-handed little boy. But Phil was a stubborn cuss, and he would have none of it. So a “lefty” he remained, albeit only on the golf course. The question is: Did it make him a better golfer?
    Mike Weir, like most young boys in Canada, first fell in love with hockey. A natural right-hander, Weir found he could swing a hockey stick more easily with his left hand low. So that’s how he played. In fact, he may well have been encouraged to do so, given that in hockey it’s helpful to have left-handed shooters playing on the left side of the ice, putting southpaws in greater demand.
    When “Weirsy” took up golf later, it only made sense for him to swing from the “wrong” side of the ball – using a partial set of left-handed clubs handed down to him by a family friend. Good thing, too. If none had been available, he may have been forced to turn things around – and who knows where his golf may have led him then. To obscurity? Or to possibly even greater heights? The world will never know.
    The man now known as Sir Bob Charles, the patron saint of left-handed golf, does everything right-handed except “play games requiring two hands.” Turns out that both his parents were excellent golfers, and lefties. That is, his mom was a natural lefty, his father a righty – but they both played golf left-handed. So when young Bob, a natural right-handed, took up the game himself, the clubs he found lying around the house were all left-handed. And that’s how he learned to play.
    Charles’s situation mirrors the challenge routinely faced by young lefties all over the world: You’re a southpaw, and interested in playing golf, but the only clubs you can find to use are right-handed. So you “make do.” But is that actually an advantage?
    While some 15 percent of the population at large is left-handed, only about 10 percent of golfers overall play that way. The worldwide shortage of left-handed equipment (especially in the “olden days”) probably explains why so many natural lefties such as Norman (world #1 for 331 consecutive weeks), Strange (a back-to-back U.S. Open champion), and Miller (U.S. and British Open titles) play golf right-handed. And play it so well.
Yet certain questions remain unanswered: What role, if any did “the big switch” play in the success of these top golfers. Would they, could they, have succeeded as righties? Given the success of these great champions, is a golfer potentially better off learning to play from the opposite side?
    And more to the point: Can a 47-year-old underachieving right-hander fix his lifelong swing flaws and become the golfer he always wanted to be by turning things around and “relearning” the game as a lefty?
    Let’s look at a few of the obstacles such a “hypothetical” golfer – that is to say, that I –would face:
    Habit. Think about how natural your golf swing feels to you. It didn’t get that way overnight, but through many thousands of repetitions. Perhaps over the course of a lifetime. Now think about how unnatural an opposite-handed swing would feel. How long would it take to make the foreign motion feel natural? Maybe it never would. It’s tempting to believe that my bad habits will go away while my good ones carry over. But that’s not likely to happen. With my luck, my touch and feel, meticulously developed over a lifetime of ball-striking, would go out the window while the nearly overwhelming massive bending arc of my tee shots would stick to me like goose poop to Foot Joys.
    Age. According to wisdom handed down through many generations, old dogs and new tricks go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise. Like Rory McIlroy and barber shops. Like Vijay Singh and Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater. Is 47 too old to learn a whole new way of doing things? Is my muscle memory too set in its crotchety old ways?
    Physiology. And that’s not even considering the physical obstacles that come with getting older. My back is not what it used to be. My flexibility (what little I ever had) has gone the way of the hickory shaft. In fact, replacing my rickety spine with a hickory shaft might be an improvement. Plus, it’s a known scientific fact that the little aches and pains everyone develops now and then take longer to go away once you start wanting to go to bed at 9:30.
    Family. I’m pushing 50. I have a son, Jack, who’s 8. A wife, Elizabeth, who’s … forever young. They are very important to me. Is it possible to put in the work that will be required to succeed without them forgetting who I am? My son already tells his friends that all I do is watch golf and read about golf. And sometimes I play golf – hopefully with him. At least he shows signs of learning to love the game as much as I do. Perhaps I can incorporate him into the learning process, take him to the range and par-3 and such. He’d like that! And so would I. But what about the missus? I don’t think she would enjoy tagging along the same way my son would, and I doubt I have enough “marital capital” stored up to carry me through. (Note to self: Start doing more laundry and vacuuming. And dusting … yeah, dusting.)
    What’s the point? Already my idea has been greeted with some skepticism from friends and loved ones – to say nothing of the outright derision dished out by my mortal enemies. They don’t understand why I would want to do this – or doubt that learning to play from the left side would be an effective method of improving my golf game. But that’s not really what it’s about. The point is to try it and see what happens. And to see what I can learn – about the golf swing, left-handedness, myself, and perhaps life – along the way. No matter how good or bad a left-handed golfer I one day become, I believe an adventure awaits down this path.
    Commitment. Is it going to be fun to start over? At what point in the learning process does golf become enjoyable? Such a quest would probably mean giving up right-handed golf completely. Perhaps for a time, but perhaps forever! Progress will likely be slow – will I miss playing decent golf too much to carry this plan to fruition? One reason I consider myself a golfing underachiever is that I’ve never been willing to put in the work (on the range, that is) required to improve the way I’d like. Am I going to be willing and able to stick to my guns and practice hard?
    That last question, if expertly appraised by one of those dudes on “Antiques Roadshow,” would probably produce a value somewhere in the range of $64,000. (At auction.)
    But there’s only one way to find out. So let the quest begin.
    Hogan help me.


  1. Excellent!! Liked the humor, that's the Zim writing I know and love. Liked the reference to NOMBA... and wondering who your "mortal enemies" are...and how anyone could question such an interesting quest. Except me when I first heard of it. But now I'm hooked. I want to read on.

  2. Excellent Idea to give us a little teaser about your quest. Please provide more interesting snippets from time to time!


  3. Take your time and don't put an artificial deadline on it. "I have played golf right-handed for 15 years. I should learn to play left-handed in two weeks" is probably a little ambitious.
    A cool part of relearning the swing is that you can tailor your swing for your 47 year old body.
    If you putt left-hand low you won't have to redo the putting stroke.

  4. I like this writing because it has three things I admire: clarity, trajectory, and HUMOR! I also like that by setting the issue of relearning golf within the larger context of reinventing yourself at mid-life ("Rebildungsroman"=coming-of-middle-age story?) it opens the book to a wider, non-golf audience. I, a non-golfer, actually can't wait to hear if this technique will work!

  5. I love the new intro! Keep it up!

  6. Nice start! I have found that those people with "natural" swings (golf, tennis, baseball) learned them as children when the neurons were still developing. So, yes, I have doubts you'll be able to pull this off. If you end up outplaying yourself left handed, I'll be the first to congratulate you AND buy you a dinner (of course, if your book ends up being a best seller, you might want to buy me a dinner).